Yale leads research collaboration to explore origins of the universe

Yale physics professor David DeMille has launched a pioneering investigation into the origins of the universe with support from the John Templeton Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation. DeMille plans to build a novel apparatus to sense the existence of never-before-seen subatomic particles thought to have a determining role in the formation of matter. Proving their existence — or absence — will provide a window into the earliest moments following the Big Bang.

DeMille will undertake the project in partnership with collaborators David Kawall of the University of Massachusetts, Tanya Zelevinsky of Columbia University, and Steve Lamoreaux of Yale. The grants from the John Templeton Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, totaling $3 million, will support project staff and laboratory equipment.

“Our approach is a radical departure from the large particle accelerators that generally come to mind when you look for exotic particles,” DeMille said. “Building on work that has been done at Yale, we will conduct a new type of experiment to probe for new particles and forces responsible for the predominance of matter over antimatter in the universe. We are very grateful to the Templeton and Heising-Simons foundations for their support, which was critical for our team to launch this work.”

Addressing a fundamental mystery in physics

DeMille’s research partnership seeks to answer a persistent question in physics known as the matter-antimatter asymmetry: Why is the universe made entirely of matter, when an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles were created just after the Big Bang? Astronomical observations show that the matter and antimatter mostly annihilated each other, turning back into energy. The antimatter was eliminated, but a tiny fraction of matter was somehow left over, forming all the objects in the universe today.

The current model for all known fundamental forces and particles fails to explain how the excess matter survived. Recent mathematical theories seek to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry by positing new, as-yet-undiscovered forces and particles, such as “supersymmetry particles.” In most of these theories, the new fundamental phenomena also cause a tiny, yet detectable, deformation in the distribution of electric charge in ordinary atomic nuclei, known as a Schiff moment. The nuclear Schiff moment arises only in the presence of new particles and forces with properties needed to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry. 

A novel way to detect new particles

Finding new subatomic particles is a notoriously difficult challenge. In the 1960s, physicists predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics, but it was not until 2013 that scientists at the CERN facility in Switzerland could prove its existence using the Large Hadron Collider — a facility measuring 17 miles in circumference and costing over $7.5 billion.

In contrast, DeMille’s team will design and assemble an instrument, about 15 feet across, in an on-campus Yale physics laboratory. The device will be made up of roughly 100,000 custom-designed and fabricated parts; it will take a team of six postdoctoral fellows and graduate students three years to construct.

“Our device will focus a cryogenic beam of diatomic molecules through an electric field to detect a nuclear Schiff moment,” DeMille said. “This technique will yield a 100-fold increase in sensitivity over the current state of the art, enough to say whether or not new particles with the properties posited by many theories to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry actually exist. This determination will either validate 30 years of mainstream work in theoretical physics or send the field in another direction.”

The experiment depends on a strange quirk of quantum mechanics, which posits that subatomic particles like electrons and protons must constantly spin out and reabsorb other particles — a phenomenon that DeMille and his colleagues have learned to observe in the laboratory. “I tell my students to imagine Pig Pen, the character from ‘Peanuts,’” said DeMille. “Every proton is surrounded by an ever-cycling cloud of short-lived particles that pop in and out of existence. Theoretically, this cloud should include supersymmetry particles.”

Direct observation of supersymmetry particles with the properties needed to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry is beyond current technology, but DeMille believes he can record their influence on the proton itself — hence his search for the Schiff moment. “The forces associated with a supersymmetry particle should cause a small but observable deformation at the surface of the proton,” he said. “This will in turn cause a similar deformation in an atomic nucleus — the Schiff moment.  We are looking for a minute dent on one side of the nucleus and a corresponding bulge on the other. If we find this deformation, we will have definitive proof that new particles exist.”

The precision of this experiment will be unprecedented, notes DeMille. For comparison, if the proton were scaled up to the size of the Earth, the dent in its surface would be 1/30th the width of a human hair.

Revising our understanding of the universe

Steven Girvin, deputy provost for research and the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, has hailed this project as groundbreaking. “David DeMille, David Kawall, Tanya Zelevinsky, and Steve Lamoreaux are on the very cutting edge of physics,” he said. “Their experiment promises to detect particles 10 times more massive than what one might see in the Large Hadron Collider. If they succeed, this will be an extraordinary accomplishment, and one that revises our understanding of the universe. I am personally grateful to the Heising-Simons and Templeton foundations for their decision to work together to fund the different aspects of this large and complex project.”

John Templeton Foundation

Founded by Sir John Templeton, a 1934 graduate of Yale College, the John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will, and encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public. More information is available at http://www.templeton.org.

Heising-Simons Foundation

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation located in Los Altos, California dedicated to advancing sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enabling groundbreaking research in science, enhancing the education of our youngest learners, and supporting human rights for all people. Learn more at www.heisingsimons.org.